Entrepreneur’s coffee enterprise puts fair trade at top of the menu

James Sweeting is a director of fast-growing Lincoln & York. He gave Suzan Uzel an insight into the world of coffee.

A VIEW across the misty plains of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park greeted James Sweeting when he awoke on his birthday last year.

It was a far cry from life back home in the Humber region, where Sweeting runs coffee sourcing, roasting and packaging firm Lincoln & York, alongside his business partner Simon Herring.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But Sweeting’s job is a tale of two worlds; it regularly takes him from the comfort of his office near Brigg to far-flung places around the globe. He has in total travelled to 17 different coffee-growing countries including Ethiopia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Honduras.

On his recent trip to Uganda, Sweeting brought along a client who was interested in having coffee sourced from the East African country.

“They were flabbergasted by the poverty they saw. A week later you fly back to the UK.

“It’s actually very hard to explain to my friends, people I know at home, what I‘ve seen. It’s almost like you operate in a parallel world,” said Sweeting, who is head of coffee buying.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“You do see another side to the world. We’ve got a responsibility to do our bit.”

Sweeting said that Lincoln & York looks at how the coffee is being farmed, how the staff are treated and the measures they have in place before making a sourcing decision.

“What we try to do is buy from growers and traders that have a sustainable business themselves that gives them a decent standard of living.

“And when we come back we have a job to do to explain to our customers that they should probably pay another 10p per kilo for this product because the guy who is growing it is going to get that bit more.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Lincoln & York is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Today, the company has a turnover of £20m, up 17 per cent on last year, with 55 employees.

The company serves the out-of-home, retail and foodservice markets in the UK, Europe and worldwide, buying its coffee via traders from predominantly South America, Central America and East Africa.

The firm purchases about 4,500 tonnes of coffee per year, equating to about seven per cent of the UK roast and ground coffee market.

But Sweeting wasn’t always in the coffee trade. He started his career in a share trading business as a junior equity researcher. The company went bust almost straight away.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“When you’re 19 and the liquidator closes the door and you have to clear your desk, it’s actually quite good experience,” said Sweeting.

“It did make me realise that grown-ups don’t always talk sense, just because someone says something, it doesn’t mean you believe it.”

Sweeting then became a trainee coffee taster and buyer at Lyons Tetley, part of the Allied Lyons Group. After five years, he joined up with Herring to create what became Lincoln & York, which started with a small roastery. Herring came from a background in commodities trading.

“It had always been an ambition to have my own business,” said Sweeting. “In fact, I wasn’t a great employee to be honest. I nearly got fired once or twice. I didn’t like getting told what to do basically.” But, initially, life as an entrepreneur wasn’t quite what Sweeting had envisaged. The early days of running the business were awful, he said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I went from being a coffee buyer in one of the biggest roasting companies in the UK, and there’s a certain arrogance which comes with that, to suddenly, over the space of a weekend, trying to sell coffee, as opposed to buying, to people who didn’t want it in pubs and clubs and hotels in East Yorkshire and North Linconshire.”

However, despite a few doubts, Sweeting stuck at it. “We got a sales girl who was really forceful. If the door was closed, she’d go in through the window.”

Gradually, Sweeting and Herring built up a network of clients, including pubs, golf clubs, hairdressers and garages.

The pair sold this part of the business to Peros, a distributor of fairtrade products to the foodservice sector, so they could concentrate on the roasting and packing of coffee.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Our USP was that we had a lot of commodity coffee knowledge, because I was a buyer, Simon was a trader. We knew about dealing with origin and dealing with the traders, which other roasting companies didn’t know.

“We also quite liked the manufacturing part; we were good at roasting and sourcing and run the small factory,” said Sweeting. The business took off from there, benefiting from the rise of the coffee shop market.

“When we started, I remember Costa having 17 shops and they have now got over 1,700 in the UK. Starbucks wasn’t even in the UK and Caffe Nero didn’t exist.

“The coffee market in the UK has just boomed, certainly in terms of the out-of-home market, the coffee shop market. .

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Since 2008, the coffee shop market has still grown on average about seven per cent a year, and even now it’s probably growing at five per cent a year.” The UK coffee shop market is expected to exceed 20,500 outlets by 2018, up from 16,500 currently, according to market research company Allegra Strategies.

About ten years ago, Sweeting, Herring and a third partner, Alex Albone, moved into a new market, launching Pipers Crisps, also based at Elsham Wold Industrial Estate.

“At that time the premium crisp market seemed to be growing... we thought, how hard can it be? We knew how to run a factory, we just needed to fry instead of roast,” said Sweeting.

Pipers Crisps, which has around 50 employees, is growing at a rate of around 30 per cent a year, said Sweeting, with turnover at just under £6m this year. It has just clinched its first customer in the United States. Sweeting said both businesses are profit-making, but he declined to divulge figures, adding that significant investment continues in both.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Speaking about the key to Lincoln & York’s growth, Sweeting, who is on the SME growth committee of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Well, we are quite aggressive I think in terms of going out to win business, but I think people like dealing with us.

“It’s a private business, we don’t have a huge management structure.”

He added: “Another thing that’s important nowadays with the volatility of the markets is that we use, in terms of pricing, a lot of futures and derivatives contracts, which many shy away from because they don’t understand it, but we use it to enhance returns and offer clients different scenarios depending on where the market is.”

Sweeting, Herring and Albone are now looking at getting involved in another business.

Sweeting’s personal preference? Engineering. “I like manufacturing. I’m a big fan of UK manufacturing,” he said.

Related topics: